Inspiring Ladies: Hyeouk Chris Hahm, PhD, MSSW


I am excited to include the newest interview to “inspiring ladies” featuring Dr. Hyeouk Chris Hahm, Associate Professor at the Boston University School of Social Work, and one of the hardest working women I have ever had the fortune to meet. Dr. Hahm grew up in South Korea and moved to the U.S. in her early twenties to pursue academia. She developed a passion for exploring and understanding the role of culture on mental and physical health, especially in young Asian American women. Over her career, Dr. Hahm has developed a strong reputation in the world of social research and has become an expert in Asian American women’s sexual and mental health. For a list of her publications and achievements please click the following and browse the other happenings in her research group, AWSHIP.

Dr. Hahm provides a unique insight into her South Korean- American culture, the challenges and rewards of being an immigrant to a new country, and tools for balancing hard-work, family, and joy in daily life.

1.  Tell me about your childhood.  How did you come to America?

I was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea.  Unlike many traditional Korean parents, my parents always instilled in me that as a woman, I could do anything.   My parents emphasized achieving a high education, developing curiosity, and setting high goals for myself.  I was always at the top of my class–in fact, I was the second female to serve as the Jangchung Elementary School president who represents grades 1-6.  The first female president (Park Kun Hae) at our elementary school became the first female President of South Korea!  So, I developed an always curious, competitive, and ambitious character as a young girl.

Like all high school students in Korea, I studied brutally.  I remember in the 11th and 12th grade, I studied at school until 9 PM, and after that I would take a van to a private library to study until 2 AM, and then I would come home at 2:30 AM.  Then I would wake up at 6 AM. I repeated this schedule for two years.  It was horrible and the toughest study time that I have ever experienced.  I would develop stomach aches, acne, and chronic fatigue.  But I kept going. I kept dreaming that I could play and rest once I got into the college that I wanted.  Despite this ridiculous effort, I did not get into the college that I really wanted to attend.   During that time, Korean students could only apply for one school and one major prior to taking a national exam.  I did not do well in the national exam, so I ended up going to a second-tier college.  That was very hard for me to swallow, so I started dreaming about the next chance for me to prove that I could be at the top school with top people.  I know it may sound snobbish, but that was very important for me at the time.  In my senior year of college (I was studying social work), I applied for graduate schools in the US.  When I got into the Columbia University School of Social Work to attend the Masters Program, I was thrilled to go to New York City to study.  Although the language was hard to learn and American culture was very different from the Korean cultural context in which I grew up, I was able to quickly adjust to the American school system and lifestyle.  I made a lot of friends; I purposely hung out with people from different cultures so that I could learn from them.

 2. How challenging was it to get started professionally, particularly as an international student?

When I first came to study in NYC, I was totally alone.  I didn’t know anyone.  I had no friends or relatives.  It was only three days before I came to America that I bumped into an elementary school friend who was living in Queens.  She said I could live with her friend while looking for a place to live (I can’t believe that my parents trusted me so much!).  I lived with her friend for 10 days—during which I found a room in Manhattan.  I took a cab and moved all my stuff from Queens to Manhattan (Upper West Side, near Columbia University) by myself.   That was the beginning of my life in Manhattan in the summer of 1992.  While attending the Masters Program, I observed, experienced, and constantly compared two cultures (Asian culture vs. American culture).  I was fascinated by their similarities and differences.  I wanted to explore how culture influences human cognition, expression, and behaviors.  Two and a half years later, I received my Masters degree from Columbia University.   

As soon as I graduated, I got a job at Queens Flushing Hospital. It was actually only a three-month job as an outreach worker for the Early Intervention Program (EIP) for Korean community members.  Because I was so anxious about getting a job soon, I took it (my Visa would have expired within a year if I didn’t have an employer).

I worked hard as an outreach worker to introduce EIP.   I took the bus, I walked, and I would knock on the doors of doctors’ offices for outreach work.  One day, the director of the outpatient mental health program asked me to do the psychiatric intake (the first interview) of an Iraqi patient.  The interview went very well, and my psychiatric intake was written with clarity and precision.  This pleased the director, and she hired me as a full-time psychiatric social worker in her unit.  I worked there for three years.  Although I was working full-time, I wanted to become a private practitioner and work in different health service centers.  Thus, I completed a workshop on how to start a private psychotherapy practice and within a week, I opened my own private psychotherapy practice on the side.  I also worked part-time as the psychotherapist at the Student Health Service Center in the New School of Social Research.  Through these experiences, my clinical skills strengthened, and I was exposed to diverse types of patients who had different diagnoses, different cultural backgrounds, and different accents.

3. How did you decide to transition into academia?

After three years [at Queens Flushing Hospital] of working as a clinician, I knew that I wanted to do research.  I observed that many patients were not getting better. Most of the clinicians were focusing on maintaining the functioning of the patients instead of making a real difference in the symptoms of functioning.  There were no specific outcome measures at that time, and psychodynamic approaches were still the dominating techniques in those clinical settings.

At that time, I was newly married to a post-doctoral fellow (a fellow in Neurobiology) in the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.  We would go to the medical school together every weekend.  He would go to the lab, and I would go to the library to read the peer review journals about clinical practice.

I wanted to share ideas with wider networks of people, and I was very curious about knowledge development.  At that time, I felt that the only thing that would satisfy me was a Ph.D. program.  I applied for the Doctoral Program in the Columbia University School of Social Work and I got in.  I quit my job but I maintained my private practice, and started my new program.

 4. What is the biggest risk you have ever taken? Do you think it was a positive one?

I take risks.  I push myself to take more risks more frequently.  My mom jokes about that, “when you are debating whether to go or not, just go; whether to do something or not, just do it” (laughs).  Of course, we use our reasoning to calculate the win and loss ratios when taking risks.  Taking an initiative and challenging the status quo using the growth mindset is so critical.  My biggest risk was coming to America. I didn’t know anybody, and I didn’t know what it would be like. But I was so propelled by my drive to prove that I could be successful that I made it work.

To me, taking a risk also involves tolerating the uncertainty—the gray area.  For example, before we moved to San Francisco, my husband got offered a job as an assistant professor at a school of medicine in the South.  The same university wanted to offer me a position as an assistant professor at its school of social work.  That would have been the easiest way to settle down.  But we ended up choosing to go to San Francisco.   He had another job offer to be a scientist at a bio-tech company, and I did not have a job, but we still chose to go there because we were young and we wanted to take a risk in one of the greatest cities in the US.  I felt that as a researcher interested in issues that Asian-American individuals face in urban settings, San Francisco would be a great place for me to really begin my academic career.  In retrospect we made the right choice.  We loved that city. I was able to work as a post-doctoral fellow at University of California, Berkeley, and I made important networks which were pivotal to my current research.

 5. What are your greatest passions and how do you find ways to incorporate them into your everyday life?

I am not sure if I can call this my greatest passion, but exercise has been one of the most important things in my life.  I have been exercising almost every day before anyone wakes up at home–for the past 12 years. Ever since I had a baby I became more highly engaged in exercise. Even on the day of my biggest presentations, I still exercise!  It is my meditation.

I find that exercise has short-term and long-term effects. I really believe that it has transformed my health and mind. I try to live a balanced life, so that I don’t run into an emergency and get sick or something. I do little things consistently. A little bit every day. Taking care of yourself and feeling good about yourself are important.

 6. How do you feel that being a woman has affected your career path?

It’s hard for women to make it to the top in academia–i.e., getting tenure in academia or going beyond.

Today, I think it is becoming more possible to have children and be successful in academia because it is more common for women to have children and have a career. I think it is critical to distribute time really well, so that you maintain a balanced life.

I don’t take long vacations. That’s what a mentor at Columbia University once told me–not to take a long summer vacation during the tenure track position.  I make time everyday to do things for me and to be happy. Creativity also comes out when I am doing something else outside of writing, research, etc. and I can then pull back to work later on.

7. What, for you, was the most fun and exciting aspect or event of your young professional years?

The reason I like academia is because I can have a prolonged relationship with people.  There is a deeper relationship in mentoring than in teaching alone. Students come and go when teaching in the classrooms, but mentoring students is a lifelong commitment.  Working with young people is energizing to me.  I have the opportunity to discuss and clarify ideas and develop them with my students.  That is very exciting for me. Learning is a lifelong journey, and being an academic offers the opportunity to do that.

My work engages with that on a daily basis, and that is the most exciting aspect because people are always talking about ideas. There is a collectivity in my work–a community of thinkers. My satisfaction level is so high because I get to do this constantly.

8. What advice would you give other young professionals?

Be the first one to invite people and be the first to approach others to talk.  Don’t wait until other people come to you because that does not happen that often.  I have always moved around, and wherever I moved I always made friends. I learned to approach people first and invite people first. Even when I was living in a small apartment in NYC, my husband and I always invited friends over. Friends connect me to other people, give me other ideas, and I find that I can be confident that somehow problems will dissolve because I know somebody will connect me to another opportunity.

You may think spending all your time in the office is the only way to be successful.  But it is important that a portion of your time be spent socializing. I try to attend as many school functions as I can for my children and do volunteer work for their school.  I have three boys, and I am serving as a co-president at my oldest child’s middle school.  

In addition, I think that success is determined by how well you can tolerate discomfort, pain, and difficult people.  I’ve seen so many people who are very smart, but they don’t do well later on or don’t make it to the top because their social skills are lacking.  Social skills are about tolerating difficult people and getting along with them.

Make your enemy, or the difficult person in your life, your friend.  Success is determined by how you handle difficulties with intelligence, not conflict. I think being transparent is important.  Tell people how you feel.  As a woman–especially as a minority woman–I have felt humiliated by others in the past, and I tell people about how I felt after my anger subsides.  I have even gone on to make friends with those same people, so sometimes gentle confrontation does help.  People are often leaving the job because of the people, but I say instead of fight-or-flight, approach.

Lastly, remember to follow your heart.  Don’t think too much about the money because the money will follow passion.  If you truly do what you want to do, money will follow.  I have definitely learned that.  Even when applying for grants, I know that certain areas are better funded than others, but I cannot tailor my submission to those needs.  I have to believe in my goals and my research.

Instead of writing about a topic that I know reviewers want to see, I take a different approach, and I say, “Let’s have our rigor and excellence intoxicate the reviewers.”

If you don’t follow your heart, life becomes so difficult.  People tell me that I need to take more vacation time, but I feel good because I love what I am doing.  I feel so fortunate.




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Tips for Adapting to Change


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My last feature was about embracing change- or, as I wrote it, curbing your “pre-change” anxiety by looking for possibilities and opportunities in change. I am now a little less than two weeks into balancing my grad program, professional job, and commuting to the city everyday, and I have realized something important: embracing change is just phase one; phase two is adapting to that change.

Phase two is a little trickier than phase one because you are forced to reflect whilst in a state of minor (or maybe major) shock at your new environment, circumstance, schedule…what-have-you. You are balancing new roles, responsibilities, and time-lines, all while trying to incorporate time and energy for your passions, and live with balance and sanity. I find this process can be made a little simpler with a few key steps.

(1) Write down your priorities:  Choose you top (aprx. 6) priorities are write them down. For me, at the moment, those are, (1) health and exercise; (2) class and homework; (3) socializing; (4) work/career; (5) romantic life; (6) relaxation & re-cooping (In no particular order). Although on my typical day I am out the door by 6:45 a.m. and coming home at 10:00 p.m., I am trying to balancing my priorities within that frame. Its not a perfect system, and I may be slightly slacking in each of the 6 categories, but I am working on it. When you know your priorities, its easier to feel confident in your routine (especially as that routine becomes more crammed and hectic) because you can be assured that your valuable time is spent in a way that is in line with your core values.

(2) Accept being uncomfortable (for a little while at least): When you start something new, it may not feel comfortable immediately, and that’s o.k. You should allow yourself a period of “transition” time to work out the kinks of your new situation, and make changes where you need to (see number (3)). Understand that in any new situation, you will be faced with unforeseen challenges and benefits- that’s inevitable! Your strength will be in your ability to manage those new variables and adapt. It’s totally normal and expected to feel uncomfortable at first.

(3) If something isn’t working, fix it: If you feel like something really isn’t working in your new situation, you don’t need to be dragged down by your circumstance like its an anchor! I know it doesn’t always feel this way, but trust me, you can find a way out of a bad situation. Think about this: if you missed the correct exit on the highway, you wouldn’t just keep driving straight the way you are going, right? You would turn around, count your losses, and find your way back to the correct exit. Believing I have the control and ability to make positive changes is something I personally struggle with, but something I cannot stress enough. For example, for me, these past two weeks I have struggled to incorporate healthy eating into my schedule. Its simply hard to do when you have to pack both lunch and dinner, and when class runs from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. each night. This routine has resulted in eating way to little during the day, and then power-eating (a pleasant way to say attack the cabinets) in the evening. So I identified the source of my problem, and now I need to fix it. Maybe that means trying to pack bigger lunches and more snacks to thwart late-night hunger; maybe it means planning more on Sundays…I am not sure yet. But, as I said in number (2), change takes a little time to adjust to, and that’s o.k. Take the time to adjust aspects of your lifestyle so that it works for you.  Above all, be kind to yourself: its o.k. if you pass your exit; just make sure you try to get back on the right course eventually.